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Music and Memory

By Iva Bittová on October 30, 2019
Iva Bittová, composer
Iva Bittová, composer
Commissioned by the Chamber Music Society, Nezabudka by Iva Bittová has its world premiere on our third Emerging Voices program, Found Voices: The New European Map.
In her essay for the project, the Czech violinist, singer, and composer explores the power of memory and the inspirations behind her latest work for voice and piano.

When I was 20 and living in what was then Czechoslovakia, my father, Koloman Bitto, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He was a musician, playing double bass, cimbalom, trumpet, and other instruments. It was difficult for him to exist without music. He died three years after his diagnosis. I decided to follow the musical path of my father and my mother, Lidmila Bittová, a singer and teacher. Music has become the best way for me to express myself, to communicate, to understand myself and others. It is a healing process just to work with the voice and violin and to practice every day.

For many years, I have worked in a range of musical styles: jazz, rock, folk, classical, and operatic. Deciding on a label for my style of music is far from settled.  It has always been everyday life that inspires my music and interpretations. I have found silence and a positive atmosphere to be the most important conditions and surroundings in which my ideas spring to life, and I believe they have a significant impact on my music.

When this commission came from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, I was immediately inspired to incorporate European folk-music elements into the piece. As the daughter of a Moravian mother and Slovakian father, I decided I would use melodies that my parents loved. The work would offer me a chance to send back a gift of gratitude to them for giving me such an amazing childhood.

During the totalitarian era in Czechoslovakia, the Czech and Slovak languages were used in the media and spoken at home. The official foreign language taught in school was Russian. Some of the older people also spoke German.  After the separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, many cultural bonds ceased, and the younger generations became less likely to speak both languages.

When I was young, our relatives were spread out over the entire country, and my favorite time was the visits we made each summer to my father’s family. They lived in a small village near the Hungarian border where many people enhanced their lives by playing music.

Leoš Janáček and Béla Bartók

Leoš Janáček and Béla Bartók

Those summers, especially chances to experience traditional Moravian, Slovak, and Hungarian folk music, are reflected in my piece. I have been particularly inspired by the Moravian folk poetry in songs by Leoš Janáček and by the Slovak songs of Béla Bartók, musical gems that are at the top of my repertoire. Every time I go on tour in Slovakia, I feel at home and welcome. Being part of a musical culture, not only as a performer and composer but also as a listener, nourishes my sense of being in tune with the earth.

Nezabudka, which means “forget me not,” relates to this connection to the past, to my exhilarating childhood and the moments when hours of practicing the violin seemed so difficult, when tears oozed onto my instrument, when growing up included the awareness that sadness can be a deeply magical and beautiful emotion. I wrote Nezabudka in quite a wonderful place in the woods. The singing of the birds and the wind in the trees was a great inspiration.

The first part of the composition, “Prší, prší, len sa leje” (Sweetest Daisy) (loc. Záhorie/Myjava/Slovakia), uses the male voice and is a confession of love. In the lyric , rain drops are measuring time. There are figurations in the piano part that evoke the sound of my father’s cimbalom. Harmonies change, and the bass line is what I could imagine my father playing on his main instrument, the double bass. The piano part mostly follows the vocal melody.

The second half of the piece is an invitation to the listener that grows into an incantation of love. The abstract female voice uses a specific technique of hyperventilating singing which requires emotion and loud sound of breath.

After that climax, comes a melody in “Nezabudka, modrý kvietok (Forget me not, skyblue flower) (Záhorie/Slovakia)” in which I contemplate a sense of deep sadness. “Today I go, never to come back anymore ,… “ is a farewell, imagining my parents‘ love as my father  is dying. The birds are singing at the end, as always. They sing in our lives and we need to hear them. The human (and artistic) wheel never stops.

I intend this piece as a reminder to keep connected with childhood, parents, traditions, passions, and emotions; to learn how to stimulate and sublimate our dark moments and transform every little shiver of inspiration into art.

This composition was not always easy to do. The talented young Czech composer Vojtěch Dlask and my younger son Antonín both helped me in moments when I didn’t trust myself. We falter, and without friendship it would be impossible to approach the target.

Iva Bittová's Nezabudka will be performed by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, bass-baritone Douglas Williams, and pianist Shannon McGinnis on Sunday, January 19 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. For tickets and information, visit the event page or pcmsconcerts.org/emerging-voices.